The Forgotten Memoir of John Knox

"John Knox was an earnest young man, fresh from Harvard Law School in 1936, who lucked his way into a Supreme Court clerkship—only 'luck' isn't quite the right word. What he did not realize until too late was that his new boss, Justice James C. McReynolds, was notorious within the court as an obnoxious grouch and as a racist and anti-Semite to boot. Mr. Knox's memoir of his clerkship, published now for the first time, offers a rare glimpse into the private world of the Supreme Court at a remarkable time in our history. …Just a few months into his clerkship, Mr. Knox found that 'a chill was gradually descending on my spirits.' Little wonder. He went on to an undistinguished legal career. The memoir he left behind, though, is a fascinating achievement."—David A. Price, The Wall Street Journal

"Fascinating.…If it is the semi-inside view of the Court in 1936-37 that brings readers to this book, it is the story of this bizarre mÉnage À quatre that will keep them hooked. The mean old judge, the ambitious but feckless secretary, the two mistreated but keenly watchful servants, all four contained within the walls of a spiffy yet cold and claustrophobic apartment—it is a delicious combination, packed with drama, irony and drollery."—Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World

"Had Balzac turned his wit on our nation's capital, the resulting novel might have been the story of John Knox.…Eccentric and exciting political and social history."—Jeff Greenfield, Harper's

"This book has novelistic force, like One L or The Paper Chase. It's about a weird quartet: the author, who is a nice young man, a bit of the obtuse narrator; his boss, McReynolds, a kind of legal Bluebeard; and the two black servants, who call McReynolds (behind his back of course) 'Pussywillow.' This is literature, rather than just history—the charm is in the telling."—Judge Richard A. Posner

"This is American history and Supreme Court history written from the inside as a drama/comedy of people and manners. Most telling for me was the view of black Americans as they study, protect, and sometimes shake their heads at the powerful white people they know as flawed human beings."—Juan Williams



Excerpts from
The Forgotten Memoir of John Knox
A Year in the Life of a Supreme Court Clerk in FDR's Washington
Edited by Dennis J. Hutchinson and David J. Garrow

John F. Knox was the secretary and law clerk to Justice James C. McReynolds of the United States Supreme Court during the term that President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to "pack" the Court, 1936-37. [1] Knox came to the job by an unusual route. He held two law degrees, including an LL.M. from Harvard, but he owed his appointment to a habit he began in high school—writing pen pal letters to celebrities. He began with Civil War veterans and proceeded to luminaries of the day such as Helen Keller, William Howard Taft, and Admiral Byrd. Even before law school, he established an on-going correspondence with members of the Supreme Court, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Benjamin N. Cardozo, and Willis Van Devanter. His most sustained correspondence was with Van Devanter, one of the conservative "Four Horsemen," as they were then called.

After years of exchanging letters, Knox finally screwed up the courage to ask Van Devanter for a job. Van Devanter retained a permanent secretary and clerk, but his colleague McReynolds suffered high turnover, and the justice recommended Knox. But what Knox thought was a dream job turned out to be a constant trial. McReynolds was a severe and distant man of intense passions and biases, including naked racial bigotry and anti-semitism. Ironically Knox developed his closest relationships in the McReynolds household with the Justice's two black servants, Harry Parker, the messenger and general factotum, and Mrs. Mary Diggs, the housekeeper and cook. Although the new Supreme Court building had been opened for a year, all but two of the justices maintained their old habits of working at home and attending the Court only for oral arguments and delivery of opinions.

Knox was seared by his year with McReynolds, and at mid-life began writing his memoirs, based on his daily diary, carbon copies of letters he had written, and his meticulous memory. After ten years of work he had a 978-page manuscript, which, despite constant effort, remained unpublished at his death in 1997. The memoir is unique: no other law clerk to a Supreme Court justice has documented the experience. Knox's work is a candid, sometimes naive, account of what might be called "Upstairs, Downstairs" at the Court during a politically tumultuous period in which the country and the Court were changing dramatically. The following excerpts are drawn from the book.


[September 18, 1936:] Harry then became quiet, looked at me intently for some moments and then decided to change the subject of conversation. He finally said, "Say, Mr. Knox, did you ever sort of notice anything different when you hear me talking to Mary?"

"Well," I replied, after a pause to collect my thoughts, "now that you mention it, I guess I did. Sometimes I hear you and Mary talking about funny things—like, for instance, pussy-willows and queens."

"That's just it," said Harry excitedly, "and Mary and me has now decided to initiate you into our secret!"

At this announcement I straightened up a bit in my chair and began to show more interest. "Secret?" I inquired, "You mean you want me to join a club or something?"

"Naw, it ain't nothing like that!" said Harry. "What I means is that once you is initiated, the three of us can talk about the Justice and all his friends without his knowing it or understanding us!"

"Indeed!" I declared with real interest. "I'm all ears. Just what do you have in mind?"

"Well, it's like this," said Harry triumphantly. "When Mary and me is getting dinner, the Justice often pokes his head in the kitchen door to give us some last minute instructions. Or he sometimes hears Mary and me talking when we is cleaning up the dining room or fixing for me to go to market. Now all the time the Justice thinks we is just talking about some of our no count colored friends, but we ain't at all. We is really talking about him and his friends!"

"Well, you don't say so," I countered. "But how do you talk about the Justice and his friends without his knowing it if he hears you?"

"That's easy," said Harry beaming, "and that's our secret. You see, we gives secret names to everybody. Take the Justice himself, for instance. We calls him 'Pussywillow'. Now his best lady friend is 'Madam Queen'—that's Mrs. [Camilla Hare] Lippincott."

"So that explains my hearing you two talk about pussywillows and queens!" I exclaimed. "Very clever, very clever indeed!"

"And now," Harry announced dramatically, "we have given you a name, too. You are going to be Mr. Shoefenicks. After this, when you hear that word you will know we are talking about you."

And so it came to pass that from that day forward I was always referred to in private by Harry and Mary as "Shoefenicks". Why they chose this name, or from whence it came, I was never to know. Nor did I ever question their selection of such a name. If the Justice, for instance, overheard Harry and Mary discussing Shoefenicks and whether he got sick after finding too many pussywillows yesterday, McReynolds must have wondered what sort of jungle dialect was being spoken in his presence.

Following this conversation, Harry began to refer at once to Justice McReynolds as "Pussywillow" in all subsequent conversation with me. Having been "taken into" the secret, I became a part of it at once. To this day McReynolds is, in reality, "Pussywillow" to me instead of "Mr. Justice". Several times, while serving as his secretary and law clerk, I narrowly avoided addressing him as "Pussywillow".

With the Justice, or rather "Pussywillow", gone to play golf, and it being a Friday, I continued my conversation with Harry in a leisurely manner. After a pause, during which I looked up toward Harry as I sat there at the typewriter, I said slowly, as if groping for words, "You know something, Harry. I think I'll call up Justice Brandeis and ask to meet him. He's not so busy now as he will be after the Court opens, and maybe he would have time to see me."

In one shattering moment, however, Harry's expression changed. His face took on a look almost of horror. "Justice Brandeis! Have you gone out of your mind?"

"Of course, Justice Brandeis. Why not? He's going to be 80 years old in November, and I'd like to meet him. Besides, his new secretary was at Harvard when I was there."

Harry made a helpless, dazed sort of gesture with his right hand, as he stood there in the doorway of my room, and he said, "Sometimes I think I never will be able to teach you nothing at all about Washington! Don't you know that we has absolutely no relations with Justice Brandeis?"

"What do you mean, we don't have any relations with him? Doesn't he come over here now and then to discuss cases that are up for decision?"

"Come over here?" exclaimed Harry in amazement. "Oh you got so much to learn! Of course, he never comes over here. Don't you realize that Justice Brandeis is Jewish?"

"Yes, but what about it?" I inquired innocently.

"Why," said Harry emphatically, "there's been only one Jewish fellow who ever got to come to this apartment, and he was Mr. Garfinckel who had the department store. You know, Garfinckel's downtown where they don't have no basement in the store."

In a tone of quiet sarcasm I said, "And how did Mr. Garfinckel ever get in here? Did he sell some merchandise wholesale to the Justice?"

This question caused Harry to pause for some moments before replying. "Say, maybe that was why he came here. I always did think it kind of funny like. Pussywillow sure don't like to buy nothing if he can get out of it, and even some of the furniture here was given to him. Take that Japanese screen, for instance. One of his lady friends sent us that a couple of years ago."

"Now Harry," I ventured, "do you really mean to say that the Justice, I mean Pussywillow, is at outs with Brandeis because he's Jewish. And does that mean Cardozo doesn't come over here either?"

Without replying to the first question, Harry immediately commented, "Now Justice Cardozo, he's a sort of special case. He couldn't come over here even if he wasn't Jewish because the Justice is real mad at him."

"Mad at Cardozo? What did he ever do to upset Pussywillow?"

"Well," said Harry thoughtfully. "It was some time ago—soon after Justice Cardozo came to Washington. Pussywillow wrote an opinion and circulated it around to the other eight Justices, as he was supposed to do, of course, but Cardozo went and made a suggestion or two about improving the wording of a few sentences. That was when he was real new to the Court, too, and Pussywillow had been here for many years. Well, Pussywillow never had no more to do with Cardozo after that, and I guess they're not even on speaking terms to this day."

"Oh Harry," I said, shaking my head slowly back and forth, "sometimes I wonder how these cases ever get decided at all. Is everybody mad at everybody else on the Supreme Court of the United States?"


[September 26, 1936:] The next morning my first glimpse of Justice McReynolds was when he summoned me to his study and rather impatiently shoved a letter across the desk in my direction. "Take care of this. Somebody wants my autograph. I've signed my name on a piece of paper here, and you can send it to this child. It's nonsense, that's what it is, wanting stranger's autographs—and for what?"

This was my first introduction to a phenomenon that I was to see much of during the months to come—requests from strangers for the autograph of the Justice. It finally became rather burdensome to answer such requests by return mail and always accompany my answers with the autograph of the Justice. In the Spring of 1937 these requests became very numerous following President Roosevelt's attack upon the Supreme Court. Yet never once did I venture to suggest to McReynolds that the matter would be simplified if he would only give me 25 or 30 autographs at one time, which I could keep "in reserve" for future requests. "If I asked him to sign his name on pieces of paper that many times and all at once, I suppose he would fire me for sure!" I rationalized to myself.

There was, however, something intriguing about this very first request for an autograph. In fact, the next time Harry stopped by the door of my office that day to ask if the Justice or I had any errands for him, I showed Harry the letter. "Nobody ever asks for my autograph," he said with a chuckle. "Say, why don't you send him my signature, too, along with your autograph and the Justice's?" And at the very thought of such a thing, Harry threw back his head, smiled from ear to ear and gave a hearty laugh. McReynolds was at that time sitting in his study but not near enough to hear what we had been talking about. Yet almost immediately the buzzer on my desk began ringing with an insistent hissing sound. Grabbing my shorthand pad, I walked in at once to the Justice's study after throwing a knowing glance at Harry. He then turned and walked back toward the kitchen.

"I don't want to dictate any letter," McReynolds said rather impatiently, "but I do feel that this is the time to speak about one thing. I realize you are a Northerner who has never been educated or reared in the South, but I want you to know that you are becoming much too friendly with Harry. You seem to forget that he is a negro and you are a graduate of the Harvard Law School. And yet for days now, it has been obvious to me that you are, well, treating Harry and Mary like equals. Really, a law clerk to a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States should have some feeling about his position and not wish to associate with colored servants the way you are doing." And with a genuine sigh McReynolds continued, "Of course, you are not a Southerner, so maybe it's expecting too much of someone from Chicago to act like a Southerner, but I do wish you would think of my wishes in this matter in your future relations with darkies."

"Yes, sir," I said, in a low and almost inaudible voice. I then turned and left the room as the Justice indicated that he did not wish to discuss the matter further. Walking back to my office I sat down at the typewriter but began running my fingers absent-mindedly through my hair and saying to myself, "What's the matter with me anyway? Am I a coward or something? Why don't I march right back in there and tell him that I am a Southerner! Of course, I wasn't born down South, I never lived down South, and I know very little firsthand about the South. But, at least many of my ancestors were born in North Carolina and Virginia during the 1700's, my great-great grandfather was married in Warrenton, Virginia, after his return from the Revolutionary War, my grandfather was born in Richmond in 1833, and a small Confederate flag hangs on one of the walls in my home next to autographed pictures of Generals Lee and Beauregard. Why, I not only know many Confederate veterans personally, but I even know a member of General Robert E. Lee's staff. I'm not just a Northerner; I'm a Southerner, too!" But on second thought I decided not to go back into the Justice's study and revive the conversation, and in fact he was destined never to know anything about my ancestors, the Confederate flag, or my Confederate friendships. Nor did Harry or Mary ever learn of this conversation of mine with the Justice.


[Late September, 1936, McReynolds cleared his throat and said:] "You asked me—umph—about what advice I would give to someone just starting out to practice law."

"Oh yes, I remember," I replied hastily.

I turned suddenly in my chair and looked intently at the Justice. I had, in fact, not even had time to rise upon his entrance into the room and then wait until he indicated that I should be seated again. There also flashed through my mind the realization that he could never be quite at ease in the presence of his law clerk—at least when he was talking to the clerk as "man-to-man". And somehow at that moment I felt a genuine burst of admiration for him, for I suddenly realized the care he had apparently taken in mulling over my question.

"I'm glad to see you are so earnest about the law," McReynolds said in a brusque sort of way. "You must be or you wouldn't have asked the question in the first place." Then with an almost inaudible sigh the Justice continued, "I think, first of all, that honesty and integrity are the most important things for a young lawyer to keep in mind. A man must have sound principles and stand by them these days, and he should not endorse every wild scheme that comes along. I suppose you know that Washington is full of impractical lawyers, and I must say that many of them seem to have come from Harvard. You might as well realize right now that I think the Harvard Law School is highly overrated!"

McReynolds drew a long breath and then continued. "I also hope that you did not come under the influence of Frankfurter when you were in law school. There was some doubt in my mind about Justice Van Devanter's selection of any law clerk who graduated from a school where Frankfurter teaches. He is certainly one man not to be trusted! Even though he is dangerous to the welfare of this country, he evidently has a powerful influence at the White House."

"I only had Professor Frankfurter for one class at Harvard," I managed to reply. "There were about two hundred students in that class, and I am sure he did not even know that I existed." I was just about to add, however, that I did consider Frankfurter a very stimulating and interesting professor, but on second thought I decided to remain silent on this point.

"But with or without Frankfurter's help," the Justice continued, "the present administration has made many mistakes. Now just suppose we review a few of them. I was a Democrat when I was appointed to the Court, but I must recognize this administration for what it is. It began, for instance, by repudiating the campaign platform of 1932. That was the first betrayal. Then it recognized Soviet Russia. Imagine restoring diplomatic relations with that country! Justice Van Devanter was over there last year, and he even saw pregnant women working on the railroads in section gangs. And yet the Communists propose to infiltrate their ideas throughout the world. And Roosevelt recognizes them and installs the Soviets in the old embassy of the Czars right here on Sixteenth Street!"

I remained silent, fascinated by the flow of conversation that I had so unwittingly released. "Shortly after we recognized soviet Russia," McReynolds continued, "we took another step down the road to Socialism and the destruction of states' rights!"

"What happened?" I ventured to suggest.

"Why a large bureaucracey began to mushroom here in Washington, and with this growth in the Federal government there has been a greater and greater centralization of power in this city. And another thing! Before he was elected the President pledged that he would cut government expenditures by, I believe, twenty-five per cent. The national debt then stood at about 21 billion dollars. But the President did just the opposite of what he had pledged himself to do. In fact, he has squandered money so fast that Congress last year had to enact a law making 45 billion dollars the national debt limit. Imagine 45 billion dollars! Why this is a sum so vast that it cannot even be comprehended!"

I could not imagine the sum of 45 billion dollars, either, except to assume that if this amount was all in dollar bills they would probably reach from Washington to the moon.

"I remember reading about your dissenting views in the gold clause cases last year," I next said.

At this statement McReynolds' eyes began flashing, and memories crowded upon him with ever increasing rapidity. "We were assured that this country would not be taken off the gold standard! [2] Not only Roosevelt promised that but also Garner and even Carter Glass. But these promises were repudiated! The dollar was depreciated to sixty cents. This meant that mortgages were depreciated, as were bank deposits and insurance funds. I want you to realize that this Administration has deliberately sought to repudiate its national obligations and to confiscate private rights. As I said last year, when the gold cases were decided, this can only lead to the moral and financial breakdown of the country!"

"What do you think the results of the Schechter decision [invalidating the administration's National Industrial Recovery Act] have been?" I next suggested.

"Well," McReynolds continued, "for one thing businessmen throughout the country have become more and more confident because of the Court's decision in that case. The decision stimulated industry, which had been hampered by the N.R.A. laws." And then after a momentary pause McReynolds said, "But I guess I have strayed a little from the subject! I just want you to realize, however, that if it were not for the Court this country would go too far down the road to Socialism ever to return. We have been at the crossroads for several years, and it is our great misfortune to have a man as President who ignores the Constitution and dominates a weak and politically-minded Congress. A man like Roosevelt can do great harm to this country, but I feel that the worst is now over. And so, getting back to what advice I would give you, let me see, well I think a young lawyer should make all the contacts that he can—but in sincerity, of course. They will help him in building up a clientele later on. He should also be able to analyze the merits or defects of each individual judge before whom he may practice. This will be of great aid to him throughout his legal career."

There was another momentary pause, and McReynolds now seemed to be groping for something to say next. Then he suddenly blurted out, "Also don't be a bachelor! I think a lawyer can be more successful as a general rule if he has a wife and family to work for. They will keep him alert and on his toes, and there will be the companionship of his wife through the years. And another thing! Don't ever wear a red tie. It is much too effeminate for a lawyer to do. I don't like red ties!"

At this statement I could not refrain from glancing down at my own tie even though I knew that it could not be red. While at Harvard I had heard that red ties were somehow taboo, and as a consequence I was careful never to purchase a tie with any red in it. The one I happened to be wearing on that particular September day was, I was glad to note, an innocuous blue in color.

The Justice then closed the conversation by saying that there were a lot of crackpot theorists in Washington who were bent on ruining the government if given half a chance. He enumerated several of them by name, and having done that he suddenly stood up and left the room. The conversation was over, but before he disappeared into his own study I did manage to thank him for answering my question in such detail. Then as soon as he had gone, I began to sketch out on the typewriter a short memorandum of his conversation so that I would not forget what he had just said.


[Late September, 1936:] The next time Justice McReynolds called me into his study for some dictation, I mentioned my surprise at learning how many campaign promises the President had broken. After some reflection the Justice slowly replied, "No trait in Roosevelt is more dangerous than the fact that he does one thing while planning just the opposite." And shaking his head back and forth he concluded, "I don't know where all this is going to end!"

Noticing a copy of the current issue of "The Literary Digest" on the Justice's desk I chanced to remark, "It will probably end in Roosevelt's defeat. What does this week's 'Digest' poll say about Landon's chances?"

McReynolds then handed me the October 3, 1936, issue of "The Literary Digest". On page 7 there was an article entitled "Landon Holds Lead in 'Digest' Poll. Kansan Ahead in 21 States, Roosevelt in 10, Lemke in None."

"Landon seems to be gaining," the Justice ventured, "I think we may be due for a change. Let's hope so at least!"

To this I replied, "I notice Roosevelt said last week that he expects to balance the budget in a year or two without imposing any additional new taxes."

"I suppose he said that in one of his campaign speeches," McReynolds remarked dryly. "Well, then, you can just be sure he is getting ready to spend some more money!"

I then left the Justice's study to peruse the copy of "The Literary Digest" which he had given me. And at the moment it seemed that McReynolds might even be right in anticipating Landon's election. "The Digest" polls in the past had proved remarkably correct. In 1920, 1924, 1928 and 1932 not only had the "Digest" picked the correct Presidential winner, but it had forecast the actual popular vote within such a small percentage of error that the magazine's polls were considered extremely accurate by 1936. For instance, the percentage of error in the 1932 poll had been less than 1%.

Not only did the "Digest" predict that Landon was leading in 21 states, but these states carried an electoral vote of 290. On the other hand, the 10 states in which Roosevelt was alleged to be leading contained only 111 electoral votes. Then, too, Al Smith had just made a stirring speech in Carnegie Hall telling a New York audience that "the remedy for all the ills that we are suffering from today is the election of Alfred M. Landon". The fact that the Democratic candidate of 1928 would endorse a Republican candidate in 1936 carried great weight with me. "Maybe he will influence several million votes throughout the country," I thought. "If Smith could swing New York State to Landon, Roosevelt might be seriously hampered."

In the evenings, however, I would tune in on some of Landon's campaign speeches [using the] small radio in my apartment. But when I listened to his voice and delivery I began to have grave doubts again that he could win against Roosevelt. It was like trying to imagine a pygmy attempting to lasso an elephant. And all the while Jim Farley remained very calm and kept saying that whatever Al Smith or Alf Landon did was quite immaterial, and that Roosevelt's victory in 1936 would be an even greater one than his 1932 success. Yet Justice McReynolds continued to place his faith in "The Literary Digest" polls. It was the only magazine that I ever saw on the desk in his study. He read each issue carefully and compared Landon's chances week by week with those of the occupant of the White House. The "Digest's" predictions were something to hold to, and to keep faith in. They were, in fact, like a guiding star which seemed to forecast the early end of the four year New Deal nightmare.


[Mid-November, 1936, after being introduced to Mrs. Katherine Ogden Savage, a wealthy widow who lived one floor away from McReynolds in the same apartment building:] At dinner held by Mrs. Savage on Saturday, November 14th, I sat near the Admiral from the Navy Department. I noticed Mrs. Savage's Negro maid eyeing me rather sharply. She was busily serving someone on the opposite side of the table, and she had just heard me tell the Admiral that I was Justice McReynolds' secretary. In no time at all this same maid informed Harry of what she had learned. A few days later he took me aside in the kitchen of McReynolds' apartment and in a very serious tone of voice asked me if I had ever heard of a Mrs. Francis M. Savage.

"Why Harry," I exclaimed in surprise. "Don't you remember? You introduced me to her when I went to Court the other day."

"That I did," Harry replied glumly, "and I'm real sorry to hear you have become a gigolo so soon."

"A gigolo?" I inquired in surprise. "Just what do you mean?"

"You know what I mean!" replied Harry. "Mrs. Savage is a widow twice your age. She is also a friend of Pussywillow's. You were seen eating with her in the dining room downstairs—right out in public where everybody could see you! And then you even went to dinner in her apartment! I know because her maid told me."

It took some time and considerable discussion before Harry was prepared to concede that perhaps I wasn't exactly a gigolo after all, but he was certain that the whole affair had an element of great disaster in it. "No good will come of this!" he said, shaking his head from side to side. "Mark my word, when Pussywillow hears about you and Mrs. Savage, you will really be in trouble—and just when everything is going nice and calm like now that the Court is hearing arguments again. In fact, you won't last until Christmas. You'll be looking for a nice new job by the time snow comes!"

"The Justice won't need to hear of it," I said, "that is unless somebody tells him."

"Well, nobody's going to snitch on you," replied Harry, "but some day soon Pussywillow will come walking down the lobby swinging his cane and see his secretary as big as life eating right there in the dining room with his lady friend from upstairs. And when that happens it sure will be curtains for you!"

"I'm prepared to take the risk," I finally replied. "After all, he only plays golf with Mrs. Savage. He isn't married to her, and he can't tell her who to invite to dinner."

"O. K." Harry concluded with a sigh, "but don't say I didn't warn you! Pussywillow is real jealous of all of his lady friends—even the ones he only sees on a golf course." And with that statement the subject of Mrs. Savage was closed for the time being. In fact, a few minutes later McReynolds arrived home from Court, and soon he was immersed in dictating a letter to me.


[Mid-January, 1937:] Not long after the White House reception [for the judiciary on January 12, 1937] I noticed a subtle change beginning to take place in the Justice's conduct of his affairs, and as the month progressed McReynolds began to exhibit marked signs of irritability and uneasiness. I finally wrote in my diary as follows:

. . . The Justice has been tipped off to something, but I don't know yet what it is. He is either fearing inflation or being forced to resign. He has had me go through his records back to 1903, he has been calling up his stock brokers, etc. A millionaire from Wall Street came down to advise him to ship part of his money to Canada and England. Beyond that I don't know what happened but will find out in due time, I suppose . . . Something is wrong somewhere . . . There may be a blow-up somewhere along the line . . .

Since McReynolds was in contact with a number of prominent people in Washington, I finally assumed that someone from Capitol Hill was upsetting him considerably by forecasting what the President's plans for the country might be. The Justice, for instance, was a friend of Representative Hatton W. Sumners of Texas, the able Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Was Sumners the one who was causing the Justice such uneasiness? I assumed that he was, and for years I felt that Sumners was the one who had warned the Justice, [but Congressman Summers denied "ever discussing the matters" when I corresponded with him in 1961]. In any event, shortly after President Roosevelt's message to Congress on January 6, 1937, Sumners revived a bill which he had previously introduced in the House of Representatives. He may have read between the lines of the President's message and anticipated Roosevelt's impending assault upon the Supreme Court. In his revived bill Representative Sumners looked toward the day when some of the Justices might resign but still need a guaranteed income each year. This bill, therefore, sought to establish a retiring Justice in a new position in which he would exercise certain minor judicial functions. In return, the Justice would be guaranteed a certain salary which would not be subject to reduction.

Now it so happened that while serving as Attorney General in 1913 Justice McReynolds had recommended the passage of a bill providing that when any federal judge, except justices of the Supreme Court, failed to avail himself of the privilege of retiring at the age provided by law, the President should appoint another judge to preside over the affairs of the Court and have precedence over the older one. "This," said McReynolds, "will insure at all times the presence of a judge sufficiently active to discharge promptly and adequately all the duties of the court." McReynolds had made this recommendation to President Wilson in 1913, but no action had ever been taken on it. Now in 1936 McReynolds, as the arch conservative member of the Supreme Court, was on the verge of finding these words turned against him by the occupant of the White House. Whether he knew this or surmised it during the month of January, 1937, I have no way of knowing for sure. But for many years I have assumed that he did know for he became more and more uneasy as he occupied himself with day by day routine Court work. He was busily preparing three decisions which he expected to read at the next opinion day—February 1, 1937—but writing these decisions was certainly not the cause of his growing uneasiness. I finally began to wonder just what was really going to happen after the Inauguration scheduled for Wednesday, January 20, 1937.


On February 5, 1937, Roosevelt announced the judicial reform legislation, which immediately caused a political crisis for the President and daily speculation on if and how the Court would respond. The proposal died in Congress during the summer, but not before the Court issued a series of dramatic decisions more sympathetic to the New Deal and to the directions of social reform that had been developing simultaneously at the state level. The "Old Court," dominated by McReynolds and the other Four Horsemen, was no more.



  1. Buoyed by an overwhelming landslide re-election in November 1936, Roosevelt proposed legislation in February of 1937 that would have added one new justice for each who was then aged 70 or older. If enacted, Roosevelt would have realized six appointments to the Court and a comfortable majority in an institution which had found one constitutional obstacle after another to various New Deal programs.
  2. [Editors' note: McReynolds ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1896 as a "Gold Democrat," breaking with the Party's Presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan, who campaigned for free silver and against the the opposition's policy which he derided as a "Cross of Gold."]


Copyright notice: ©2002 Excerpted from The Forgotten Memoir of John Knox: A Year in the Life of a Supreme Court Clerk in FDR's Washington, edited by Dennis J. Hutchinson and David J. Garrow, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2002 by Dennis J. Hutchinson and David J. Garrow. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

John Knox
The Forgotten Memoir of John Knox: A Year in the Life of a Supreme Court Clerk in FDR's Washington
Edited and with a Foreword and Afterword by Dennis J. Hutchinson and David J. Garrow
©2002, 310 pages, 18 halftones
Cloth $32.50 ISBN: 0-226-44862-2
Paper $17.50 ISBN: 0-226-44863-0

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for The Forgotten Memoir of John Knox.

See also: